AC Milan 2-1 Liverpool FC
(Inzaghi 45 53; Kuyt 89)
OACA Spiros Louis, Athens
As Carlo Ancelotti faced the press after AC Milan had defeated Liverpool FC 2-1 to win the UEFA Champions League in Athens it was clear the Rossoneri coach had completed his own personal odyssey. The journey had been long and arduous, but for the 47-year-old the fact the destination was so unexpected made it all the sweeter.
When AC Milan last played at the OACA Spyro Louis Stadium in the group stage the previous November, Ancelotti's team were at their lowest ebb. Sixteenth in Serie A, they had won just one of their previous four league matches. Forget about winning the UEFA Champions League, the real challenge was to qualify for the competition again. The form of many of the side had dipped following their exertions helping Italy lift the FIFA World Cup the previous summer and Milan were also feeling the effects of a difficult pre-season.
Plans had to be changed at the last minute after they were docked points for their part in the sporting fraud scandal, which meant starting the season earlier than expected in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. FK Crvena Zvezda were duly beaten, but the affects of having to play those matches would be felt long into the campaign. By the time Milan lost to AEK in November, Ancelotti's job was on the line. Another Group H defeat would follow against LOSC Lille Métropole at San Siro on Matchday 6 but by then Milan were safely through to the knockout rounds.
The superlative Kaká aside, Milan had looked less than convincing and a narrow 1-0 aggregate victory against Celtic FC in the first knockout round hardly assuaged the doubters. Kaká would get the winner that night, one of ten en route to finishing as the tournament's leading scorer. A stuttering FC Bayern München were seen off in the quarter-finals to set up what would prove to be a thrilling semi-final against Manchester United FC. United had defeated AS Roma 7-1 at Old Trafford in the previous round and they hit three more in a 3-2 win against Milan. The Rosseneri, however, hit their stride in the return and United had no answer to a brilliant first-half performance that set up a 3-0 win and a rematch of the 2005 final.
It was a case of déjà vu for Liverpool who had also defeated Chelsea FC in the semi-finals in 2005 and did so again here. Goalkeeper Pepe Reina was the star for the Reds who triumphed in a penalty shoot-out at Anfield after the two sides had swapped 1-0 away wins. Rafael Benítez's side had eased through a group containing Galatasaray SK, PSV Eindhoven and FC Girondins de Bordeaux before knocking out holders FC Barcelona in the first knockout round and PSV, again, in the last eight. With Chelsea out of the way the psychological mind games could begin. Liverpool had clawed back a 3-0 first-half deficit before beating Milan on penalties in the 2005 final and that match was scrutinised as the Athens return loomed.
Milan played down talk of revenge but the sense of relief was huge when Filippo Inzaghi deflected in his side's opener shortly before half-time. A second Inzaghi strike with eight minutes to play sealed Milan's victory and their seventh European Champion Clubs' Cup even though Dirk Kuyt reduced the arrears in the final minute. Ancelotti was twice a European Cup winner with Milan as a player and he triumphed again as Rossoneri coach in 2003.
Nothing, however, could match victory in Athens. If losing to Liverpool two years previously had been the low point of his career, this was the high. Revenge didn't come into it. "Very few people expected Milan to win this most important of trophies this season, perhaps nobody expected it," Ancelotti said. "It is the greatest victory we've had. We never lost sight of what we wanted to achieve."
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